So the desert – man, it was hot! But the Indian Wells during the first weekend of the Pacific Life Open still was the only place I wanted to be, even in the hundred-degree heat. With my wide brimmed hat and a eight inch slather of sunscreen, I was as content as a cat in a sunny windowsill (albeit much sweatier.) Hell, even Roger’s early-round loss to reformed doper Canas didn’t get me down.
Some days have passed since I roamed the grassy lawn of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, and the memories from the tournament have faded (or am I still recovering from heatstroke?), so I’m choosing to do my blog in a stream-of-consciousness-meets-bullet-points format instead of in chronological order.
Bec Cartwright does not make me gag anymore. On Saturday I spied Lleyton’s wife – who looks more like a hot au pair than an actual mother – happily strolling outside the Grandstand with daughter Mia slung on her hip. “We’re going to see Da-da!” she cooed, as Mia waved a tiny hand at the gargantuan photograph of Hewitt that was hanging outside Stadium 2. Instead of thinking “Barbie, but with less personality,” like I usually do when I see her on television, I actually thought, “Aw, sweet!” I even felt a little bad when Hewitt lost to Janko Tipsarevic a few hours later.
I don’t like Roger – at least not that much. Oh yes, it’s true! There’s a Cult of Federer out there, and I’m not drinking the Kool Aid. Entire families walk around in Swiss flag t-shirts, men who can’t tell Tommy Robredo from David Ferrer lecture their wives on Roger’s skills (I overheard plenty of blowhards while watching R.F. face those two Spaniards in doubs), and one crazy-eyed fan sitting on the bleachers in front of me turned around and announced that “Roger is a really nice person,” “Oh, really?” I answered, humoring him, as if I haven’t been following the guy’s career since his first Wimbledon title, duh. Praise be, Roger, praise be!
The Roger worship dampened my own enthusiasm for him – like when I fall in love with a style of shoes (silver flats, for example) and then two seasons later I find them on sale at Famous Footwear. Good thing my tennis hero is more like a pair of black Converse low tops – trendy but always classic. It was a real thrill seeing him play doubles from three rows behind the baseline! I couldn’t get a full appreciation of his game, since doubles muffles his brilliance a bit, but I could admire his general beauty and observe the eerie Matrixy motion-delay thing that happened when he hit his forehand.
The man is not only awesome, but also honorable. He could have left partner Yves Allegro hanging, considering he used two medical timeouts in the course of losing his singles match just an hour or so before he was scheduled to play doubles. I have to admit I was surprised – and good for hubby John, who never doubted that he’d show!
One last Roger-related thought (and yes, I maintain that I’m not high-priestess of the Church of Federer): Roger’s profile at IW has risen dramatically since I first attended in 2005. That year, I didn’t hear anyone mention Him in passing. Sure, he was already a big star, but he still faced that “he’s not American” b.s. stateside. Last year, there was a some improvement, evidenced when I overheard a woman in the bathroom stall next to me ask her friend when “Federer” was up in the Grandstand. Fast forward to 2007, and it’s like a biological Roger bomb exploded in the food court. Must be the tenth Grand Slam title that made people take notice.
Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, how about Mr. “Guns ‘n’ Buns”? (I can’t take credit for the nickname, btw, I read it somewhere on tennis.com.) Not only did Nadal mow down everyone in his path and come out the eventual champ, he also made me a member of the Vamos Rafa fan club! I mentioned that I thought Roger was too injured to play his doubles match that was scheduled for Stadium 2, where I had spent most of the afternoon staking our front row seats. So despite my husband’s protestations, we walked over to the even smaller Stadium 3 and scored a second row, behind the baseline perch. From there, I had a great view of Nadal and his pretty-boy partner FLo warming up with their opponents, Jamie “Stretch” Murray and Eric “Booty” Butorak. The names in quotes were printed on the backs of the kids’ shirts – I didn’t make those up, either. It was a trippy scene – all four players were dressed in blue tops and white shorts (or piratas in Rafa’s case) and all four were lefties.
What struck me was how cute Nadal was in-person! (Yes, I know that’s not exactly breaking news!) He’s both leaner and taller than he looks on t.v., although his arms look even bigger. But what really engaged me was his smile and his boyish demeanor – for all his muscle, the kid pulled the same silly faces that my four-year-old niece makes when she’s hurling herself onto the sofa or opening wide for a huge forkful of pho noodles. I just wanted to reach out and pinch his cheeks! (Heh heh.)
I caught Nadal again on Sunday evening, but this time he was taking on Fernando Verdasco in the big stadium, so his face was about the size of a pinhead from where I was sitting. To be fair, the Grandstand at IW is much, much better than Flushing’s Arthur Ashe, where regular-folks really would be better off watching a match on a mini-black-and-white-t.v. in a toll both somewhere along the Dan Ryan expressway. Anyways, my nosebleed seating was still close enough to the action to make me pull at my hair and gasp with excitement. The two-setter wasn’t as routine as the score line suggested, with the Spaniards really putting on a show. Verdasco’s monster serve and amazing forehand clashing with Nadal’s superhuman defense/offense switcheroos made the stadium buzz with a chorus of “OOOOH”s at least a couple of times per game. The crowd really got behind Verdasco, who left it all out there on the court, warrior-style. He literally roared while standing in ready position, just as Nadal was about to serve out his match point. I’ve never heard a player do that before. But I had to hand it to Guns ‘n’ Buns, he’s incapable of being intimidated.
Go, Canada! My own “player to watch” pick for the season is Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, Canada. He took Gonzo to three sets in one of the best matches I saw over the weekend. My quads burnt from watching how LOW Dancevic got for his one-handed backhands. Like many who possess a pretty one-hander, he also had great variety. He could chip, charge, slice – all that good stuff. I think he’ll makes a statement on tour this year – and not just because his game is fun to watch.
Thomas Blake, James’s bro, spent a lot of time bopping around the side courts on Saturday. He went from Gonzo-Dancevic to Peer-Safarova (as did John and I) and we saw him get mobbed for autographs a couple of times (“can you just sign James Blake, please?”). He smiled and chatted and let off a cool guy vibe. Curiously, the only thing I overheard him say was “Maria Kirilenko,” and later that evening, I noticed him sitting two seats away from me during the Kirilenko-Chakvetadze match (just before James was scheduled to play in the main stadium.) I suddenly remembered seeing Thomas on t.v. last year, sitting in the stands during a Kirilenko-Sharapova match in Toronto or somewhere. Given the evidence, I decided that he was either dating or stalking the other pretty Maria. The plot thickened a couple of days ago, when I read in Bodo’s blog that Thomas was actually Maria K.’s designated on-court coach as part of the whole WTA coaching experiment! I don’t know what to make of this, but I find it very, very, interesting. How do these relationships form? Why doesn’t Maria K. have a “serious” coach out on the court with her? Is Thomas legitimately her coach or just a tennis boyfriend? And will Maria dump his ass after that lame loss to Chakvetadze?
In U.S. Open v. Indian Wells, IW is the winner. The U.S. Open is great, don’t get me wrong, but for pure tennis-enjoyment, the Pacific Life open takes the big gold bowl in straights. (If only all the women would show up! I’m worried that the Middle East cash-grab tournaments are going to spoil the Pacific Life draws from now on.) Indian Wells is a wonderful facility – the practice courts are totally accessible to fans (take note, U.S. Open) and sitting around the tennis garden is relaxing and fun (although I will give the Slam an edge with it’s big screen and glitzy fountain.) One big plus for IW – the food is actually decent. During my three days at the tournament, I ate a reasonably tasty Italian beef sandwich (go Chicago!), a nice Cobb salad, some decent tacos and some pretty yummy nachos supreme. John dug the Brazilian BBQ place, even though it kept running out of meat. I encountered nothing even close to the Italian sausage from HELL that tormented me last September.
Even better than the food was the outstanding tournament staff, made up mostly of gentle, doddering retirees, tanned to a crisp. The crew, whether old or young, volunteer or paid, serving up grub or piloting golf carts, was – without exception – cheerful, competent and friendly. The whole desert crowd was equally mellow – I encountered no jerks, no pushing, and no slobs leaving crap all over the stadium. (Even the bathrooms were clean!) We joined in many genial tennis-fan discussions with fellow attendees, including an adorable mom/pre-teen son couple. All in all, it’s an almost perfect tournament, if only they could make it a little cooler.
What’s up with the Roddick beat-downs? Do they just seem more dramatic because we all have heightened expectations that Roddick can succeed with his new Jimmy Conners-tooled game? Or is it just telling of how superior Rafa and Roger are to the rest of the field, making Roddick’s number 3 position more like King of the Damned?
That said, isn’t it a little lucky for Rafa that Blake, Youzhny, and Berdych all got beat before they had a chance to beat him (again)? Check out their head to heads.
Watching the final week on t.v., I realized that I actually like the whole WTA coaching thing. It’s not intrusive, since it can only occur between sets (or during timeouts), and I think it really does add to the audience’s enjoyment. I liked hearing Hantuchova complaining to her coach about Li Na’s tough second serve and locked-in forehand. It made her seem accessible to the 2.5 players out there. In the end, she still had to make the changes and figure out the points on her own, and I don’t think that coaching really took away from that metal dimension of the game. In fact, I think it highlights the struggle by showing how important it is to think on the court. I hope it catches on with both the players and the fans.
I HEART Darren Cahill! Not only does he come across as a really nice, easy-going guy, with none of the annoying sportscaster tics that Patrick and Cliff have developed, he is also danged insightful. I loved his commentary during the men’s final: the way he broke down what was happening on the court and even predicted the change in strategy (start returning Nadal’s serve to his backhand) that Djokovic employed to keep the second set competitive. It’s rare that the chit chat goes in depth on the technical stuff without seeming indulgent or boring. I’ll enjoy him while I can – I’m certain he’s too good a coach to stay in the studio for long!
Here’s to another great tournament and onward to Miami (GO ROGER!)